This post is best enjoyed either with Chopin’s first ballade, Liszt’s Les Preludes, or Beethoven’s Ode to Joy playing in the background.
“My father was a musician by the grace of God” spake the mighty Johann Strauss in 1887, and it so happens that God is seldom associated with classical music nowadays. Most commenters and analysts often stress the intellectual aspect of classical music; the complex melodies, the vertical harmonic structures, the motifs ect… Yet very few consider the spiritual dimension of this monumental genre, which is a shame to my mind, as it neglects an important lens though which we might enhance our appreciation. What differentiates western classical music from its various counterparts in Asia is the emphasis of harmony over melody. South Asian classical music emphasizes melody, rhythm, but operates without harmony.
What is harmony? According to Wikipedia: “In music, harmony is the use of simultaneous pitches (tones, notes), or chords.” But what is it’s function in the western classical tradition? I believe its function is to impose order and balance, which imitates God’s order in the Universe. Christian theologians like St Augustine believed that order and symmetry were the key components of beauty (echoing the views of Aristotle) and it is my (inexperienced) view that harmony is to music as what symmetry is to visual art.
It’s been said that civilizations communicate their worldviews through art, and if this is so, what then is classical music’s raison d’etre? I believe it is to convey beauty, a sublime beauty that transcends physical form. Saint Augustine believed that beauty was an attribute of God and that He was the very manifestation of beauty, hence all that was perceived as beautiful in the world was merely a shadow of God’s beauty. The astute reader would no doubt see a parallel between Augustine’s conception of beauty with Plato’s theory of forms, where beauty has a perfect form which transcends the world and thus possesses an ontological basis to its existence; hence the beauty present in the world shares in the ultimate form of beauty. I believe that it is precisely this sort of beauty that classical music attempts to convey, thus magnifying its power over our spirits a hundredfold in comparison to other modes of art. It is through experiencing this beauty that one glimpses the face of God. Beethoven once said:
“The vibrations on the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul. Music is the language of God. We musicians are as close to God as man can be. We hear his voice, we read his lips, we give birth to the children of God, who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are.”
Franz Liszt expressed a similar sentiment decades later when he said:
““The church composer is both preacher and priest, and what the word fails to bring to our powers of perception the tone makes winged and clear”.
But what does it all mean? I can only but illustrate from my own personal experience. When I listened to the second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony for the first time, I was moved to tears. The beauty of the piece spoke not to my intellect, not to my emotion, nor to any faculty which I possessed that bound me to the physical world; but spoke directly to my soul. It was in that moment that I glimpsed the face of God. Sensory perceptions are converted to electrical signals which must then be interpreted by the brain, but when something communicates directly to one’s soul, no interpretation is necessary as the only faculty required to grasp it is one’s own humanity.
The second movement of Beethoven’s 7th symphony conducted by the magnificent Carlos Kleiber.
I had a similar experience when I listened to Chopin’s first ballade for the the very first time. Much of Chopin’s music, in terms of form and format, was influenced by the Polish religious music he was exposed to as a child. While Chopin was nowhere as vocal about his Christian religious beliefs as Beethoven, Liszt, and Bach, some sources indicate that he was a somewhat observant Catholic in private. Chopin’s music communicates a tranquil stillness, a fleeting moment of beauty that once elapsed, can never come back. Some compositions, notably his waltz in C Sharp minor (op 64), evoke in my mind the image of morning dew on leaves.
In a strange twist of fate, the romantic era of music was juxtaposed onto the Enlightenment, the latter embodied the West’s intellectual energies whereas the former it’s spiritual energy. The flowering of classical music amidst the mechanistic environment of rampant materialism and cold science speaks to its enduring capacity to reorient man toward the ultimate aim of civilization: To build a better man. If the Enlightenment was a revolution of the material order against the spiritual one, I would then conclude that the romantic era of music was a spiritual revolution against the materialist one; a revolution embedded within a revolution.
Is Classical music Christian? In terms of genre, perhaps not. In terms of character, most certainly.